Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, one of the country’s top health care policy scholars, has resigned from his faculty position at Dartmouth College, after an investigation by the school concluded that he had committed research misconduct.
“I am saddened to say that I am resigning from Dartmouth,” Welch wrote in an email to colleagues Thursday. “I feel that I can no longer participate in the research misconduct process against me — as I fear my participation only serves to validate it.”
STAT and Retraction Watch reported last month that an internal Dartmouth investigation found that Welch plagiarized material from a Dartmouth colleague and a researcher at another institution for a 2016 paper published by the New England Journal of Medicine. The paper concerned how breast cancer screening led to the overdiagnosis of tumors and unnecessary treatments.
The investigation found that Welch “engaged in research misconduct, namely, plagiarism, by knowingly, intentionally, or recklessly appropriating the ideas, processes, results or words of Complainants without giving them appropriate credit …”
Welch told STAT and Retraction Watch for the report last month that the paper was a “natural progression” of his research and that “the underlying data are publicly available — all the analyses, all the figures, an all the writing in the article are my co-authors’ and mine.” He added that the dispute centered on “the origin of the idea — not about the validity of the work.”
In his email to colleagues, Welch wrote that the dean of Dartmouth’s medical school had proposed that, as punishment, Welch contact the journal to revise the authorship of his paper by listing the complainant as first author and that Welch could stay employed by the institution but not be allowed to teach.
“I cannot in good conscience accept the demand that I make the complainant an author — much less the demand that I make him the first author,” he wrote. “Doing so requires that I falsely attest that he meets the requirements of authorship: namely, that he materially participated in the work and is able to defend it. Much as I have enjoyed working at Dartmouth, I am not willing to falsely attest to anything simply to stay here.
“Furthermore, the demand that I no longer teach subverts the very reason I came to work at Dartmouth.”
Welch was a professor at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice and also held positions at the medical school, business school, and college.
Welch wrote that he had respected the confidential nature of the investigation for nearly two years “and never wanted it to become public. But that changed when the complainant chose to release confidential documents from the investigation to STAT in mid-August, and I now feel compelled to respond.”
In documents Welch emailed Thursday, he argued that Dartmouth’s verdict in the case was at odds with the conclusions of the New England Journal of Medicine and the U.S. Office of Research Integrity. Both groups, Welch said, agreed that his actions did not rise to the level of “idea plagiarism” or research misconduct but rather were a dispute over credit.
Welch acknowledged being intrigued by his colleague Samir Soneji’s data, which he first saw in 2015 at a seminar Soneji was giving. He asked for and received a slide, and noticed what he says were several errors. Welch said that he communicated with Soneji about trying to improve the analysis, but that he didn’t seem interested. Meanwhile, Welch said he fixed the errors and made his own figure with the corrected data — a figure that found its way into the NEJM article.
In other words, Welch argues, Soneji’s data was an influence, but in reverse. “Ironically, it’s [sic] biggest influence was simply because I realized it contained errors. That is what drove me to look directly at the data myself,” he wrote.
Welch said Dartmouth got hung up on the similarity of the NEJM figure with Soneji’s rather than looking at the data themselves.
And he dismissed the notion that the information was novel.
“It was the product of ideas and methods I have been using for decades — ideas and methods that are the result the influences that many others have had on my career,” he wrote.
Welch concluded the email by telling his colleagues, “For nearly 30 years, I have been blessed to be able to work with the many fine staff, faculty and clinicians at Dartmouth. It has been an honor to work with all of you.”
Welch is a prominent scholar and author whose work focuses on unnecessary medical screenings and interventions that can drive up health care costs and harm patients.
Soneji declined to comment on the resignation.
Soneji has filed a grievance with Dartmouth in which he claims to have been the victim of retaliation for his complaint against Welch. The grievance alleges that he felt pressured to consider entering into mediation with Welch — presumably putting a halt to the investigation. The investigation went forward, however, and there was no mediation. And he implies in the grievance that the 10 percent salary bump he received when he was promoted earlier this year was less than it should have been and may have been an effort to penalize him for speaking out against his renowned colleague.
Neither Welch nor Dartmouth immediately responded to requests for comment.
Ivan Oransky of Retraction Watch contributed reporting. This story is a collaboration between STAT and Retraction Watch.